Left On, Man

The reason why we talk about Right and Left in politics is said to be because one bunch of people sat on the one side in the first French National Assembly, and another sat on the other side.

Very well, but what if any relationship does this have to the bias in many European languages? As southpaws never cease to complain, the Latin has given us the word “sinister”, while “dextrous” compliments the right-handed on their skill. We borrow the French “gauche” to denote social clumsiness. In Norwegian, “venstrehåndsarbeid” means bodging and bungling. Spanish “tener mano izquierda” means to be cunning, not necessarily in a nice way, while “ser diestro” means to be competent. In German, “links” is similarly sinister, as in “Die drehen ein linkes Ding”. In Russian, doing something “na levo” means doing it through unofficial, probably criminal, channels. Meanwhile, “rechts” “right”, “droit” and “derecha” are indissolubly wedded to concepts of ethics, law, justice and legal entitlements.

All of this is much older than the French National Assembly. It may be, therefore, that this prejudicial wiring in at least the European brain caused a certain sort of deputy to sit on the right-hand side of the Chamber and contrariwise. And yet: although it was natural for the French conservatives to think they were in the right, surely the radicals thought they were in the right as well? No man is a villain to himself. Perhaps the conservatives were smarter and grabbed the right side first, as it plays to their perennial self-portrayal as the representatives of the natural state of Man, see my essay “The political default setting” in “Resistance is Futile!” But suppose the radicals had managed to grab benches on the right-hand side of the Chamber? Would we then be calling progressives, liberals and socialists “right-wing”? And would they then be more powerful, with the linguistic connotations now working in their favour?

Posted on July 10, 2011 at 11:40 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Some Notes On Language

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